My baby daughter looked puzzled when the baptismal water touched the crown of her head last year. When I was baptized at eight years old, it was much different. I remember walking into the sanctuary in my bathing trunks and towel in hand. I remember choosing baptism and understanding the minister’s words before he dunked me under. But in both cases, a profound change occurred in our souls on the day of our baptisms: We became adopted children of God.
We might wonder, as many Christians do, why Catholics baptize infants. It seems strange. The baby doesn’t know what is happening, and yet this is considered the pivotal moment in its life. In order to understand, St. John Henry Nemwan tells us in his sermon, “Infant Baptism”, we have to learn who we are and who God is.
According to Newman, baptism is a “means and pledge of God’s mercy, pardon, acceptance of us for Christ’s sake; it gives us grace to change our natures. Now, surely infants, as being born in sin, have most abundant need of God’s mercy and grace: this cannot be doubted.” This fact is lost on most people, including many Christians. Infants are normally considered innocent, and so are children in general, until they reach a certain age. Our culture has taught us that our choices are what matter above all and that they determine whether we are good or bad, whether we are happy or not. In reality, we need salvation from the moment of our birth and we cannot get it on our own. We are born with the stain of Original Sin, which separates us from God Who is infinitely out of our reach. In Baptism, He condescends to us and washes us clean.
But even if infants need baptism, who’s to say they should get it right away? Shouldn’t they have to wait until they are older so they can learn about baptism and perhaps think about its meaning, preparing themselves to receive this great gift? God forbid. When Jesus said “suffer the little children to come unto me” He did away with any kind of test that would earn His grace. When His arms were nailed open on the cross, he opened wide the door to salvation. Newman explains: “Will it be said that infants are not properly qualified for Baptism? How is this an objection? Consider the text.—’Except one be born of water and the Spirit,’ says our Lord, ‘he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’ There is nothing said about qualifications or conditions here which might exclude infants from Baptism,—nothing about the necessity of previous faith, or previous good works, in order to fit us for the mercy of God. Nor indeed could any thing be said. Christ knew that, without His grace, man’s nature could not bear any good fruit, for from above is every good gift. Far from it.”
When we understand who we are and who God is, the mystery of infant baptism is solved. We are sinners in need of salvation. The only cure for this fatal ailment is God Himself, who is our doctor and our medicine. Newman says, “To defer Baptism till persons actually have repentance and faith, is refusing to give medicine till a patient begins to get well.”
We cannot impress God with what we bring to our baptism—whether our good works and knowledge, swim trunks or baptismal gowns—He sees us as we are. He knows only His treatment will do. When His work is done, we are new creatures, new members of God’s family.
If infant baptism seems strange to us, most likely we have forgotten the fundamental truth about ourselves and our Father God. Baptism itself—besides saving us—is meant to remind us of this truth. Today, however far we are removed in time from our baptism, let’s strive not to be far in spirit from that day we let God make us His children by grace.